"Still Searching," one of the sixteen cuts on Phobia, finds Ray Davies singing, "Lookin' at another sign for another town/Wondering if I'm ever gonna settle down." The yearning of the forty-eight-year-old chief Kink resounds unsettlingly. Davies personifies the Eternal Misfit, a disaffected dandy — and twenty-nine years after "You Really Got Me" he's still unsatisfied. "We stretched the bounds but always kept the code," he declares on "Wall of Fire," and this note of beleaguered nobility serves the Kinks well; since inventing power rock, they've long fired their salvos from the sidelines, their classics (Something Else, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Muswell Hillbillies) and later fluke hits constituting a fitfully brilliant body of work that never won them the stadium appeal of other Brit Invasion stars.
Phobia is prime late-model Kinks. Dave Davies drives home customarily tough, wry guitar work, and the rhythm section of Bob Henrit and Jim Rodford provides resolutely unflashy accompaniment. But the spotlight, as always, is less on the playing than on the songs themselves. Mining Ray's trademark obsessions — anxiety, nostalgia and longing — these sturdy melodies support decidedly disturbing themes: eco-apocalypse ("Wall of Fire"), suicide ("Don't"), urban threat ("Somebody Stole My Car") and multiform angst ("Phobia," "Babies"). But while Lou Reed or Nick Cave might employ such subject matter for something darkly baroque, Davies's thin, affecting singing and caustic, romantic vision render these phobias as disconcertingly comical, bitterly Chaplinesque.
True sweetness, of a very British reticence, also sneaks into the mix. Davies, after all, wrote "Waterloo Sunset," the most tender ballad of the Mod era, and that same sensibility betrays itself in the album's slower songs, most notably "The Informer." "Just two people having a beer/But on either side there is so much anger and so much fear," Ray recounts in that tale of friendship and betrayal. Then, after conceding that the pain of the past still hurts, he offers reconciliation: "I'll be the one who's gonna take you home tonight."
If the bulk of Phobia proves that the old warhorse still can rock & roll without embarrassment, it's the album's poignant moments that echo boldest. Revealing Ray Davies's essential restlessness, they show an artist still expert at shaking us up.